"I think it's going to be extremely difficult to get it done before Christmas but it could be done," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Boehner's office took the step â¿¿ unusual in secretive talks â¿¿ of announcing that Republicans "sent the White House a counteroffer that would achieve tax and entitlement reform to solve our looming debt crisis and create more American jobs."

Obama dispatched a top aide, Rob Nabors, to the Capitol for talks afterwards.

Both sides say they want a deal to prevent damage to the economy, but that stated commitment has been accompanied by a fierce battle to gain the political high ground in negotiations â¿¿ and the occasional comment that one side or the other would be willing to let the deadline pass without a deal unless it got acceptable terms.

Republicans acknowledge that Obama has an advantage in one respect, citing his re-election last month after a race in which he made higher taxes on the wealthy a centerpiece of his campaign.

At the same time, Republicans hold powerful leverage of their own, the certainty that by spring the president will be forced to ask Congress to raise the government's borrowing authority. It was just such a threat that previously allowed them to extract $1 trillion in spending cuts from the White House and Democratic lawmakers, a situation that Obama has vowed he won't let happen again.

Democrats have watched with satisfaction in recent days as Republicans struggle with Obama's demands to raise taxes, but Reid has privately told his rank and file they could soon be feeling the same distress if discussions grow serious on cuts to benefit programs.

Coincidentally, in an ABC interview, Obama did not reject a Republican call to raise the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 67, a proposal that many Democrats strongly oppose.

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